Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Judge seeking employment options for felony probationers

Austin District Judge Charlie Baird believes probation works better than prison for many offenders, but says the key for their success is getting and keeping a job. Reports Steven Kreytak at the Austin Statesman ("Judge takes active role in lives of probationers," Aug. 13):

Judge Charlie Baird says that for the more than 1,800 people on probation in his court to turn their lives around and stay out of jail, they need a job.

But getting one is not easy for people with criminal records, said Baird, a second-year state district judge in Travis County who thinks, sometimes to the dismay of prosecutors, that probation, and not prison, is appropriate in many cases.

Baird last week began the county's first in-court effort to link people on probation with counselors who could help them find jobs. On Aug. 6, he called to court about 25 people he had previously sentenced to probation and ordered them to meet with City of Austin counselors in rooms adjacent to his courtroom. Most of them had been convicted of drug crimes; none was a violent offender, Baird said.

"The best anti-crime program is a job," Baird said.

When people come before him because of parole violations, he said, "the dominant factor is they don't have steady employment. That leads to depression, drugs, drinking too much, hanging with the wrong crowd."

Judge Baird essentially is undertaking a one-man experiment in stronger probation practices, using probation instead of incarceration for most offenses but intervening more directly in individual cases so probation doesn't become a joke:

Baird often calls probationers back to court after they have violated the conditions of their probation but rarely sends them to prison. Most violations are minor, such as failing to pay probation fees or meet with a probation officer, he said. He uses those settings to speak with the probationers, asking them about their lives and what they need to be successful. He looks them in the eyes and calls them by name.

He sometimes offers a reward — cutting the term of their probation or the fees they must pay — for successes such as getting a high school equivalency certificate or a job.

He has asked friends if they would be willing to hire ex-offenders. And last year, he began sending a few people from his court to a City of Austin program designed to help people transition out of poverty. The program offers job training and counseling and seeks to solve other problems such as a lack of transportation or presentable clothing.

Martin Harris, director of the federally funded program, offered to take counselors into the courthouse so probationers would associate the program with their sentence and feel compelled to follow through. Baird plans to host counselors and probationers once a month for several months to see if the effort makes a difference.

This blog has long considered finding employment for probationers a huge barrier to reducing crime and recidivism. Indeed, if I had my druthers, employment status of their charges would be a primary outcome measure by which probation officers are evaluated and departments are funded - same goes for parole.

That said, employment alone is not a silver bullet for every offender, and Travis County has been investing in other evidence based approaches that complement Judge Baird's job hunt.

Geraldine Nagy, director of the Travis County adult probation department, said employment is "an important piece to the puzzle" and lauded Baird's efforts. She said some of her probation officers are being trained as employment counselors, but her department puts much of its resources toward what she considers the most effective ways of reducing future crime: substance abuse treatment and classes designed to alter anti-social thinking.

A 2006 report by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy says drug treatment reduced by 12.4 percent the recidivism rates of offenders with a history of drug involvement. The report, which combined the results from almost 300 studies done since 1970, says programs designed to alter criminal thinking reduced recidivism rates from 8 percent to 31 percent, depending on the type of offense committed.

Employment training and job assistance for offenders reduced recidivism rates 4.8 percent, "a modest but statistically significantly reduction," the report says.

Here's the Washington State report on recidivism and probation programs (pdf) the article referenced. I was interested to read those statistics and a little surprised the recidivism reduction from employment appears lower than other approaches. But IMO such analysis would be misleading if it caused officials to think finding employment isn't as important as other strategies, because at the end of the day finding and holding a job is the key to stability and normalcy.

Here's hoping Judge Baird's employment experiment succeeds swimmingly and that other jurists follow his lead.


Anonymous said...

With the money that is spent on "rehab" and probation, why not offer employers a tax break to math half the saleries of convicts so the employers see a big benifit.
This would last 1 year then the employee has shown his worth or should be rightly terminated.

Anonymous said...

How about having probation meetings outside work hours?

Is anyone surprised that recidivism rates are "higher" for state run programs? It's sort of like how recently all cancer was lung cancer because the States were getting money for lung cancer.

I would truly like to see independent research about what works and what does not.

Having a job one likes and that pays a living wage is important for everyone, not just probationers!

Anonymous said...

This judge and the state of Texas, aka:"CONFUSION" should get a clue and pay Adult Probation Officers a salary comparable to the Juvenile Officers and teachers who are much better paid! Then you could reduce caseloads that would make working with probationers much more beneficial for all involved. A recent study by Dr. Lee of Angelo State University shows that the majority of Adult Probation officers like what they do. But they're having to make a decision between supporting their families or finding a higher paying job. The lege even recommended a $6000 raise for all caseload officers. But, as usual they requested a study be done. So guess when that may happen. Comprable pay would be a great way to keep officers from leaving for other jobs. They pay $45 per day for prison and only $4 per day for probation supervision, what a joke!
23 yr. veteran

Anonymous said...

anon : 9.49 ~ there is already a scheme where employers can claim back some tax for 6 months if they hire and ex-con. It's just not publicised very well.

Anonymous said...

Sunray - I believe that is a Federal Government program - Tax credit for long term unemployed which does not exclude convicted felons.

The State of Texas would not be likely to pay for anything like that! Texas hopes all the convicted felons will go to other States.

Anonymous said...

Judge Baird is to be commended for his hands on approach in an effort to help offenders under his supervision succeed. It is too bad that he does not have the full support of the chief adult probation officer in this endeavor.

Anonymous said...

Baird is to be commended on his efforts. Too bad that he, like grits, has no respect for crime victims or for prosecutors.

He'll be a one term judge. Just like when he was on the CCA.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree, but instead of just jobs, why not equip them to run their own businees, barber, body work, construction etc.and make the appointments with probations officers at a time where it more convenient for them, but pay the officers a per diem for working after 5P. It's very hard finding work as a felon,and even harder taking time to miss work to report to a probation officer, and since Texas is a "right to work" state any little things can cause you to lose a job, then they are right back to where they were trying to get out of. Yes probation officers should make more money. After working as a Private Investigator for 22 years, one of the things I looked at was going to work as a probation officer, but found that I make more money working as a legal secretary. What a shame that the State of Texas puts all of their efforts into keeping people in prison v. placing them back into society as "productive citizens'.

Anonymous said...

I encourage all ex-offenders under the age of 30 or so to consult with their local armed forces recruiters. The military is now granting more waivers for a criminal background than they have since Viet Nam. Hopefully the traditionally clueless parole boards and courts will take this advice to heart and steer our new job seekers to Uncle Sam for consideration. Come to think of it, the same advice holds true for TDCJ guards looking for new opportunities........

Anonymous said...

There is a very positive editorial in today's Austin American Statesman about Judge Baird and his effort to get probationers job ready and employed.

Anonymous said...

Actually the State of Texas does offer an employer incentives, which is a tax break & insurance, for hiring an ex-offenders its called the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC)& the Fidelty Bonding.

Unfortunately, it's only available to state level ex-offenders not probationers through the Project RIO program. Project RIO program is managed by the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC).

In addition to expanding this eligiblity standard to allow probationers access let's not forget the need for more employers to hire ex-offenders.

Bottom line if the community is unwilling to support the reentry of ex-offenders; the ex-offender doesn't stand a chance.

Anonymous said...

I work for the courts here in Travis County and Baird is a moron. The point of the article should have been "What the hell is a five time felon out on the loose for".

Those Evidence Based Practices have broken the Probation Department. Their officers aren't getting any raises this year. Also, they were recently reclassified by the County, but they are getting that either.